Home Feature Lillian Wauthier recaps the Folk Alliance International conference in New Orleans

Lillian Wauthier recaps the Folk Alliance International conference in New Orleans

Digging Roots. Photo by Leonard Poole.

Music is alive and well in New Orleans! I’ve just come home from the huge 32nd annual Folk Alliance International Music conference (Jan. 22-26) celebrating the story of people and place, held at the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans – a wonderful, eclectic, unique city! Although initially the conference was rather overwhelming, one quickly embraces the “family” of around 3,000 delegates, who are mostly musicians, presenters, agents, managers, producers, record label personnel, radio hosts, techies and those there solely for a good time. An enormous thanks to executive director Aengus Finnan and his staff for putting together a superbly planned, interesting and important agenda.

A few words to give you an idea of what goes on at these conferences: first off, you have to do some research and plan your days, as it takes a great deal of stamina to make it through an intense five days of solid, steady information input. It’s not just all about listening to music, and it’s just not possible to cover every panel discussion or workshop. But with the help of an excellent FAI app, you can fit in a smattering of learning and musical experiences. 

The mornings and afternoons were relegated to panels, discussions, meetings, workshops and receptions, followed by the official showcases featuring artists chosen by the conference organizers and held in several ballrooms from 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. These were followed by the private “guerilla” showcases in often-theme-decorated hotel rooms on the 8th-12th floors. Elevators to and fro were a bit of a challenge with often long-ish waits, and an unusual elevator system to get used to. On a keypad, you punched in the floor number you wanted, and a screen above informed you which elevator – A to E – to take. There were no numbers to press inside, just a long, horizontal panel with the designated floors lit up. Needless to say, everyone was a tad disoriented at first.

The conference was massive with so many choices, and as so often happens, there were at least three, four or five panels – as well as a multitude of artists – to hear all at the same time, so careful planning and choices had to be made. I did my best, but not nearly well enough, I fear. There was an exhibit hall with over 70 trade show booths, and to add to the mix, there were daily eye clinics, wellness centres and affinity groups with safe spaces to connect with others sharing various identities such as cancer patients, parents, women, people concerned with mental health, people in recovery, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, members of the LGBTQIA communities and people of colour.

Here are a few samples of the sessions on offer: Music and Migration; Guitar Flatpicking of the Masters; Wisdom of the Elders; Cultural Awareness; Addressing Racism and Being a Person in Progress; Cajun Fiddle Techniques and Tunes; Gentrification and Local Culture; International Indigenous Music Summit; Creative Placemaking (with Toronto councilor John Filion on the panel); The Risks We Take: Music Entrepreneurship; The Lineup: How It Comes Together; Creole, Kreol, Criollo-Stories from the Diaspora; Folk in the Mainstream and many, many, many more. 

I attended the peer session for venues and workshops called Effective Leadership in Non-Profit Music Organizations, Cultural Listening and Connection, Finding Folk Fans: Who Are They Really? (that’s you folks!!), When a New Venue is Born, Art as Activism, and Presenter’s Pledge: Cultivating Global Citizenship. I managed to poke my head into a few more. 

Highlights for me were the keynote interview with the marvelous Mavis Staples, the Folk Awards ceremony – which honoured among others, Ani DiFranco (People’s Voice Award), Holger Petersen (DJ Hall of Fame), Mahalia Jackson, and BeauSoleil (Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement awards) –  the panel called Art as Activism as Seen Through Zoe Boekbinder & Ani DiFranco’s Prison Music Project, and two films: the wonderful Woody Guthrie: 3 Chords and the Truth (not yet released to the public) and Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. 

And then there was the glorious music! The Canadian artists who performed official showcases were Suzie Vinnick, Dave Gunning, Catherine MacLellan, Digging Roots, Genticorum, Jimmy Rankin, John Wort Hannam, Ken Whiteley, Rose Cousins, Shakura S’Aida, Oh Susanna, Royal Wood, Corin Raymond, The Once, Lydia Persaud, Melisande, Jay Gilday, Mo Kenney, Adyn Townes, Alysha Brilla, Burnstick, Celeigh Cardinal, David Myles, Digawolf, E.T.E., Elage Diouf, Elisapie, Erin Costelo, HuDost, Kelly Bado, Les Hay Babies, Minor Empire, Okan, Poor Nameless Boy, Quique Escamilla, Ramon Chicharron, Ryan McNally and the MessaRounders, Skye Consort & Emma Bjorling, Tanika Charles, Terra Lightfoot, The Jerry Cans, Wesli, and Turmel-Leahy-Schryer. There were also some Canadians living elsewhere in the world, like powerhouse Tami Neilson, who is based in New Zealand. And there were more Canadians featured in the private showcases, such as Piper & Carson. 

Music highlights for me included the Irish contingent with Jigjam, Kila and Slow Moving Clouds (unfortunately, I missed the others). I also loved Steve Poltz, Dave Gunning, Suzie Vinnick (yes, my faves!) and Maria Muldaur and Tom Rush. Given that the private showcases ran from 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. and that I no longer have the energy of the young ‘uns, sadly, I did not get to many of the late-night showcases.

On Sunday morning, there was a grand joyous farewell honouring many sacred and secular traditions and the musical souls and saints of New Orleans both past (Dr. John and more) and present. 

I should add that I did have a chance to do some sightseeing with my Vancouver friend, Patricia Sibley, her daughter Jennifer, and with Radio Boogie host Steve Pritchard. I enjoyed the food of course – po’boys, muffulettas, beignets – and the frenzied, delightful chaos of Bourbon St. I also enjoyed exploring the French Quarter and went on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of other areas. I most enjoyed the New Orleans Museum of Art and the fabulous WWII Museum, which ranks third in North America and eighth in the world. it featured a never-before-seen film entitled Beyond All Borders in 4D (!) and narrated by Tom Hanks. It took five years to make and utilized the skills of 500 producers.

It takes time to reflect on all that transpired so I’m sure I will have further thoughts on my experience. The one very prominent and outstanding realization that has hit me once again is that, at this conference and at others from the past, as well as at folk festivals, there is a resounding atmosphere of true community spirit, of a large loving family of like-minded people gathered together to share in a spirit of compassion, kindness, generosity, giving and gratitude. One might say that these people insulate themselves in a cocoon, away from the world and cold, hard reality, but the fact remains, that this prevailing intellectual, emotional, passionate and spiritual stance of beauty and truth, life affirmation and embracing all cultures is how the world becomes an enriched place in which to live. I know that there are many people doing good work around the world. But although it may seem trite, I firmly believe that if the world-wide governments, the policy-makers, the powers that be, the man/woman-on-the-street embodied these ideals and dedicated themselves to this perspective and philosophy, there wouldn’t be any wars, mass killings or any of the other abuses and injustices that are so prevalent today. I wish I could explain this better but try it people. Find your group, your tribe, your fellow open-minded, loving and caring citizens, congregate together for a few days, then leave and go back to your regular life. You will feel the difference, you will feel bereft, missing something.  I’m not saying that to denigrate anyone.  It’s not that you cannot uphold these good intentions and humanitarian ideals in your own home, but it takes many voices to carry them forward – the voices and sentiments of hope for people together to affect great change in the world and to take care of each other. 

For resources, check out: folk.orgfolkmusiccanada.cafolkmusicontario.ca, and the Maplepost and MapleBlues listservs. There’s an abundance of great resources out there. And of course, frequent your local music venue such as Acoustic Harvest, which I operate in the greater Toronto area.


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